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Response: The Uses and (Potential) Abuses of Contextual Integrity

Hey everyone

Helen Nissenbaum’s Privacy in Context critically explores the intricate network of concerns governing contemporary discussions about privacy. At the heart of her argument is a framework she refers to as “contextual integrity”, or the notion that people’s attitudes toward privacy are more complex than a binary between the permissive and the restrictive. Instead, she contends that “what people care most about is…ensuring that [information] flows appropriately” (1; her emphasis), and that the structures determining what is deemed appropriate have both a customary/normative and a moral level.

I find immense value in the descriptive potential of the contextual integrity framework to demystify the seemingly endless ideological and regulatory structures involved in privacy debates. The recent outrage over shifts in Instagram’s terms of service, for example, might be considered using the heuristic Nissenbaum describes in chapter seven, which involves determining the existing context and actors involved, as well as the changes in the types of information being transmitted and/or the principles governing that transmission (169). We might argue, for instance, that Facebook’s role as an actor previously known to disregard, or at best obfuscate, existing privacy norms is justification for what seemed to some to be an overreaction or misunderstanding regarding actual shifts in transmission principles. In such a case the disagreement can be understood not as a misguided argument about what privacy is/why it matters, but rather a multidimensional negotiation about which factors in the contextual integrity framework are ultimately deemed most significant in that particular setting.

However, I find Nissennaum’s work ultimately less convincing when she attempts to argue that contextual integrity can also work as a prescriptive formula governing the moral aspect of privacy concerns. Though she admits at the beginning of the text that privacy battles are inherently unequal, favouring those with “power, resources, and the capacity for unremitting persistence” (8), chapter eight of the book admits and ultimately defends conceptual integrity’s inherently conservative nature, suggesting that the onus should be on those suggesting novel approaches to first prove that existing norms around information transmission are inadequate. While I by no means would argue that all shifts in privacy policy are inherently emancipatory, existing laws typically function in ways that reflect existing structures that privilege some while oppressing others. Why, then, would the burden not be on those in power to continually justify unjust practices that deem particular subjects more worthy of controlling their own privacy than others?

Works Cited

Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in Context. Stanford, CA: Stanford Law Books, 2010. Print.

About meganf

Queer, Marxist-feminist DH scholar out in the Wild West (Alberta) blogging about all the things.


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